This is another book that I’ve already seen the movie of before reading it, before I even knew it was an adaptation, before I even knew there was a book. The more I read, the more I worried I was going to be left unsatisfied by it because it was exactly like the movie. The adaptation had been very faithful to the text. Usually that’s a good thing. But because I was reading the book after having seen the movie, I was looking for the differences, the details that can’t be replicated or demonstrated on film. I wanted a different experience, not the same one I had while watching the movie.
I got that and so much more. It’s not a perfect novel (it could be called slow) but it is so close that I can’t give it anything other than 5 stars, which anyone who reads my reviews and ratings will know is not something I do often. I’m a hard marker but this is a great book. This is a book that should be and will be read for decades to come. This is a book that should also be used as a teaching tool for all others wanting to write a book.
Smilla, the main character, is half Greenlander, half Dane. After the disappearance (and presumed death) at sea of her Greenlandic mother, who was a traditional hunter and lived a nomadic life with her children, Smilla is taken by her father to Denmark where she struggles to adapt. She runs away several times, making it back to Greenland twice, but always her father finds her and brings her “home”.
The story begins when a young boy living in the same apartment building as Smilla, who is now 37, jumps to his death from the roof of a local Copenhagen warehouse. The official explanation is that he fell while playing. But Smilla knows he would never have been playing on the roof. He was afraid of heights. And she also knows snow (hence the title). The tracks in the snow lead straight off. No child plays by running in a straight line, she reasons. The only reason he would have been up there was if he was being pursued by something or someone he feared more than his fear of heights. And Smilla can’t rest until she knows why the child was driven to his death.
The writing is languid and the pace is unhurried. Though the book is described in some places as a thriller, I think the pace is too slow for that description. Instead, it’s more of a mystery, not just the mystery of why the boy died but also the mystery of why Smilla is so determined to unravel it. Smilla as a character is revealed just as slowly as the pace, like an onion’s layers being peeled back with breaks in between to wipe the tears from your face and steel yourself to deal with the next layer.
One of the great triumphs of the book is the sense of Greenland, the knowledge of Greenland, the impression of what it is to be a Greenlander that seeps from every page. Having read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent not that long ago, which is set in Iceland, I realise that what Peter Høeg has achieved here is what Hannah Kent was trying – and failed – to achieve: to establish a sense of place on the page. The only things I really knew about Iceland and Greenland before was their oxymoronic names because, as the saying goes, Iceland is green and Greenland is icy. Now, because of this book, Greenland is fixed in my mind so vividly despite the fact that I’ve never been there. Iceland, despite having read Hannah Kent’s book, remains unknown.
I read the English translation and in some places the writing feels stiltedly formal but after a while it feels like the style of the writing rather than a flaw. It contributes beautifully to the fact that Smilla is a hard character to know.
There are some convolutions in the plot and Smilla always seems to be able to find someone in her life who just happens to know or know of the key players in the mystery and provide important insights. And quite a lot she is able to progress through the story simply because those pulling the strings allow it without any particularly logical reasons. The ending also consists of the villain capturing our hero and explaining all the parts of the mystery that she wasn’t able to learn for herself, instead of refusing to and killing the hero, thus leaving himself open to being thwarted.
But the final paragraph of the book is perhaps the best final paragraph of any book I have ever read. As a writer who struggles with writing endings, I am envious. In fact, it’s an ending that could have been tacked on to the end of many, many books, if any of the authors had thought to write it. I’m going to quote it here in its entirety because it doesn’t give anything away but I hope it intrigues and makes others want to read the book if they haven’t already, just to get to that last paragraph and let it blow their mind the way it did mine.
“Tell us, they’ll come and say to me. So we may understand and close the case. They’re wrong. It’s only what you do not understand that you can come to a conclusion about. There will be no conclusion.”
Pow! Straight between the eyes!
Read this book and judge all other Scandinavian fiction by it. In a word, in all senses of the word, imperative.
*First published on Goodreads 9 February 2016